As China approaches the 50th anniversary of the launch of late supreme leader Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the ruling Chinese Communist Party appears to be sending mixed signals about public events marking the decade of turmoil and political violence.
Earlier this month, some 300 performers took to the stage in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, for a concert of revolutionary songs from the Mao era, sparking concern over political maneuvering in the corridors of power.
While no high-ranking leaders attended the concert, which drew a crowd of 6,000 people, it was given by the Fifty-Six Flowers entertainment troupe that is ultimately controlled by the Ministry of Culture.
Online commenters have speculated that the concert was a political message aimed at the general public.
“Nobody would get into the Great Hall of the People to commemorate the Cultural Revolution without the prior approval of the Central Propaganda Department,” one online commenter wrote, echoing the feelings of many others.
However, the party appears to want to mark the anniversary with a heavily edited version of the years of upheaval, which are still remembered with painful difficulty by older people in China.
Earlier this month, banners of a party-backed group obscured signs for the privately run Cultural Revolution museum in the southern province of Guangdong. The museum opened in 2005 in a discreet location at the top of Tashan, a mountain where many of the Cultural Revolution dead from the nearby city of Shantou were buried.
The move is an indication that the government sees a place for revolutionary singers and red-clad dancers to celebrate the rise of Mao’s brand of communism, but not for the commemoration of the widespread death caused by armed militias, the torture and beatings in political “struggle sessions,” and the starvation that also marked the era.
In recent weeks, visitors have flocked to Mao’s birthplace at Shaoshan in the central province of Hunan. Complete with Mao impersonators, massive statues, a museum preserving his family home, and revolutionary song and dance shows, Shaoshan is the epicenter of “red tourism” in China,
The anniversary comes at a time when many fear that President Xi Jinping, who has consolidated more power in his own hands than any other Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, may be taking the country in a similar direction.
Analysts say Xi’s nationwide anti-corruption campaign has more to do with a power struggle at the heart of the party leadership than it does with a genuine attempt to eradicate rampant graft.
Meanwhile, party members and state media have been warned that they must toe the party line in public, while the general public has been warned to beware of foreign spies and foreign cultural “imports” such as Christianity and democracy.
And workers in state-owned enterprises last year reported that management appeared to be reviving Mao-era “self-criticism” campaigns across the state-owned banking sector.
Sichuan-based political activist Huang Xiaomin said the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao on May 16, 1966, amid a fanfare of editorials in party newspapers, has left an indelible mark on the psyche of modern China.
“[The Cultural Revolution] is probably the biggest influence on Chinese culture and on the way Chinese citizens are today,” Huang said.
“It has killed off what was positive in our traditional culture, leaving us with a society today in which there are no moral limits or restraints,” he said. “There is a sort of collective depravity in today’s society that I personally believe is tied up with [that era].”
A former Red Guard who gave only his surname Tan said he is concerned that modern Chinese history could repeat itself in the absence of far-reaching political reforms.
“I was there. I have personal experience as a Red Guard, in my early teens,” Tan said. “I was subjected to the so-called political education of the Cultural Revolution era.”
“It was only after it was over that I started to reflect and to believe that if we don’t make the transition into a modern nation with democracy, constitutional government, and the rule of law, the Cultural Revolution will happen all over again, just in another form.”
Rights activist Pan Lu, deputy director of the Wuhan-based group China Human Rights Observer, said the ruling Chinese Communist Party relies on propaganda, rather than policies, to hold the country together.
“There was a line by the former Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, who said that a lie, if it is repeated 1,000 times, becomes the truth,” Pan said.”The Communist Party’s propaganda department has taken his advice to heart.”
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.